Laʻaloa Beach’s parking lot to reopen as part of County’s renovation and preservation plans
October 15, 2022, 8:01 AM HST
* Updated October 16, 12:11 PM
For five years, the parking lot at Laʻaloa Beach County Park in Kailua-Kona has been gated after the State Historic Preservation Division and community members demanded the protection of a sacred heiau and seven other historical sites.
The County now is moving forward with its latest version of the park’s preservation plan, and to the dismay of some community members, the plan includes the renovation and reopening of the parking lot, but with the number of spaces downsized from 26 to 11.
“Right now, they’re allowing to desecrate the site,” Kona resident Simmy McMichael told Big Island Now.
On Thursday evening in the dilapidated parking lot with cracked asphalt and overgrown weeds, officials with Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation Department met with about 60 community members to explain the renovation plans for the beach park also known as Magic Sands or White Sands — and the preservation and burial treatment plans for Laʻaloa, which is south of the sandy beach.
The price tag of the two projects is $1 million.
Residents took turns closely examining the plans displayed on easels that detailed changes to the park. The work, slated to begin Oct. 31, will provide disability access to Magic Sands Beach, tear down and replace bathrooms and showers, and remove two coconut trees and two non-native trees, including the banyan tree by the restrooms.
Community members also were shown the La‘aloa preservation plan, approved by the Historic Preservation Division in March 2007. It detailed changes to the parking lot and crumbling rock wall, and the addition of native plants that will be planted to protect the burial site.
Both projects are expected to be completed in 7 to 8 months.
On Thursday, county officials handed out maps that detailed the scope and boundaries of the projects. James Komata, county park planner, explained the preservation plan is centered around the preservation of the heiau. A 50-foot buffer zone will be established around the site protected by the planting of native plants. Interpretive signs will be installed in the area and a non-native coconut tree on the south end of the parking lot will be removed.
In the 2007 preservation plan, eight historical sites were identified, including the Haukālua Heiau, a habitation platform, historic wall remnant, furo (spring), location of former Kūʻula (fishing shrine), location of canoe landing, papamū and poho palu (bait mortars).
Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina said the preservation plan was approved by the Historic Preservation Division, which included the parking lot remaining in place.
“They’re not sure what archeological artifacts are underneath there and we don’t want to disturb any more than what’s already under there,” Messina said.
The new parking lot will have only 11 spots, including two that are handicap accessible. The south end of the parking lot will be blocked off to vehicles and only accessible to pedestrians. Messina said only portions of that area will be repaved.
On Friday, Messina told Big Island Now the County has all the permits and approvals to begin the construction.
“Through all the community meetings and consultations, we’re able to move forward with this project,” he said. “This isn’t us trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat.”
The controversy over the parking lot dates to 1994, when the County first announced plans to build an 80-stall lot at the site. Hawaiian elders formed a group called the Laʻaloa ʻOhana to oppose the lot, leading to an agreement to create a Hawaiian Cultural/Educational center in 1995 and a community-based preservation plan in 1997.
The plan limited the parking stalls to 25 and the County said in a 1997 environmental impact statement that it would install protective measures for the historic site prior to construction. But that did not happen. In 2000, the County built the parking lot without those protective measures.
In 2014, with the protective measures still not put in place, the State of Hawaiʻi Historic Preservation Division sent the Countyʻs mayor a scathing letter that demanded the protective measures be implemented or the County could potentially face millions in fines.
On May 17, 2017, the County closed the parking lot indefinitely due to the ongoing desecration caused by the parking lot.
Hilo-based Isemoto Construction was awarded the current bids for the renovation and preservation projects, which will be done simultaneously.
“We want to get moving forward with this,” Messina said Friday. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
Ron Cawthon, a resident of Kona for 30 years, has been speaking out in protection of La‘aloa for several years. He said the area is meant to be a living cultural Hawaiian community center.
Cawthon said the preservation plan the County is moving forward with is not the same as the one completed in 1997 by the group Kumu Pono Associates.
“They’re doing bits and pieces but they’re not doing the whole thing,” he said.
While the projects are ongoing, Komata said parking along Ali‘i Drive and the mauka parking lot will remain open. However, the first three stalls along the main roadway will be reserved for water safety officers.
Komata explained there may be short-term beach closures when crews dig up water lines beneath the beach. Portable toilets and showers will be brought in through the duration of the project.
“Our goal is to keep the beach open as long as we can,” Messina told the crowd.
Nancy Ginter-Miller and her husband Mark have lived across the street from La‘aloa for 30 years. Prior to the presentation, she said Magic Sands has been in need of ADA access and new bathrooms. She also added the parking lot has been an issue for several years.
Ginter-Miller said she thought the County would to turn the parking lot into a community space with grass.
Residents at the meeting were also asking about stewardship of the land. Komata said it’s the County’s hope to partner with a community group in taking care of the sacred area.